Answers to Kids' Questions About Insects
The following questions were answered by zoo biologist Ellen Dierenfeld and entomologists John VanDyk and Steve Kutcher.
Q: Are daddy longlegs spiders?
A: No. Daddy longlegs are in the order Opiliones (spiders are in the order Araneae) and are also known as harvestmen. They have a neat escape mechanism: if something grabs one of their legs, the leg can just break off and the harvestman can run off with the rest of its legs. The legs don't grow back, though.
Q: What is a dragonfly's favorite insect to eat?
A: All of the dragonflies I asked were going too fast to hear me. Either that or they were too busy to stop. But I often see them eating mosquitoes, midges, flies, gnats, and other small flying insects.
Q: Why do horseflies bite us?
A: They bite you because they want to eat your blood. Horseflies have a kind of feeding that I like to call "slash and sponge!" First they slash a cut in your skin, then they sponge up the blood and eat it. There are lots of insects that eat blood — mosquitoes, blackflies, and even some moths do it.
Q: Why do lightning bugs flash?
A: They are trying to attract a mate. Flashing is their way of advertising that they are available. Different species of fireflies have different codes that they use. Sometimes, predator fireflies flash the code of another species, and when that species shows up, they eat it!
Q: Why do stink bugs stink if they die?
A: They even stink while they're alive, if you disturb them! This is a way of defending themselves. Who wants to eat something that stinks? I sure don't. So if something wants to eat the stink bug, the stink bug just turns up the smell, and hopefully the predator changes its mind!
Q: Why shouldn't you pick up an io caterpillar?
A: Io caterpillars have spines on them that contain venom. This can cause painful blistering if a spine pierces your skin. Ouch!
Q: What do earwigs eat? Why do they like to live in my house?
A: They like to live in dark, damp places. Maybe your basement is dark and damp? Or maybe just cool and dark. They like to eat organic matter and sometimes eat plants.
Q: Why do ticks draw blood?
A: They use the blood to make eggs. Blood contains lots of protein and nutrients, and ticks use this to develop hundreds or thousands of eggs (mosquitoes do the same thing).
Q: Does a tick die after sucking your blood?
A: The reason ticks suck blood is to get nutrients to make their eggs. So when a female tick has had enough, she will drop off and hide for a few weeks or months while her eggs develop. After she lays the eggs (and she could lay hundreds or thousands of eggs!) then she dies. You usually don't have such a problem with male ticks since they are just trying to find the females. Usually after the male has found a female and mated, he will die. This type of life cycle is true for the deer tick and may be slightly different for other kinds of ticks.
Q: Why do mosquito bites itch?
A: Normally when you get a cut, the blood clots up. Otherwise, you would bleed to death from a little tiny cut. This is a problem for the mosquito, because the mosquito wants to suck your blood, not get stuck in a clot! So the mosquito injects some chemicals that prevent clotting. A side effect of those chemicals is that they cause itching. It is interesting that humans have more of a problem with this than, say, rabbits. Many animals don't have any sort of an allergic reaction to mosquito bites.
Q: Where's the place with the most mosquitoes?
A: I would really hate to be in the arctic tundra during the summer without my insect repellent! Here is a quote from Rocco Moschetti, who works in Alaska: "Alaska is said to contain more than 40 percent of the nation's surface water resources. Enormous amounts of standing water left over from spring snow melts provide ample opportunity for mosquito breeding. Vast expanses of boggy tundra, coastal marshes, swampy valleys, and upland bogs are well-noted mosquito breeding sites in Alaska. Twenty-eight species of mosquitoes occur in Alaska and all but two are believed to bite humans. On the arctic slope the biting season is, perhaps, the most intense in the world!"
Ken Philip, an entomologist in Alaska, reports that if you are on Alaska's North Slope with no repellent and lots of exposed skin, you could die from loss of blood within three hours!
Q: Why do they call ladybugs, ladybugs?
A: Ron Lyons, a naturalist at the Chula Vista Nature Center in California, gives this explanation: "Because of their generally beneficial nature, farmers in the Middle Ages felt these insects were sent from Heaven and called them the Beetles of the Blessed Lady. Today we know them as ladybird beetles, or more commonly "ladybugs."
Q: How does a ladybug fly?
A: Ladybugs have wings hidden under their hard orange backs. Once the ladybug lifts these orange protective pieces out of the way, it can fly just like a lot of other insects!
Q: How many kinds of ants are there?
A: Lots! Ants are usually grouped together with bees and wasps in a group called the Hymenoptera. There are about 189,711 known species of Hymenoptera, with more to be discovered.
Q: Can the velvet ant sting?
A: You bet it can! Velvet ants are really wasps, and have just about the most painful sting around. Steer clear of velvet ants!